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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Last Time We Say
Goodbye by Cynthia Hand

Release Date: February 10, 2014
Publisher: Harper Teen
Age Group: Young Adult
Format: Kindle
Source: Purchased
Pages: 400
Buy: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / IndieBound
Description: Goodreads
There's death all around us.
We just don't pay attention.
Until we do.

The last time Lex was happy, it was before. When she had a family that was whole. A boyfriend she loved. Friends who didn't look at her like she might break down at any moment.

Now she's just the girl whose brother killed himself. And it feels like that's all she'll ever be.

As Lex starts to put her life back together, she tries to block out what happened the night Tyler died. But there's a secret she hasn't told anyone-a text Tyler sent, that could have changed everything.

Lex's brother is gone. But Lex is about to discover that a ghost doesn't have to be real to keep you from moving on.
When I was 17 years old, in my first few weeks as a freshman in college, on a Sunday that started like any other Sunday, I got a call from my parents that someone I’d known for many years, a close friend of my brother’s, had killed himself. I hadn’t seen or spoken to this friend in a while, but that didn’t matter. The shock came immediately.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy

Release Date: March 18, 2014
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Age Group: Young Adult
Format: Kindle
Source: Purchased
Pages: 336
Buy: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / IndieBound
Description: Goodreads
What if you'd been living your life as if you were dying—only to find out that you had your whole future ahead of you?

When sixteen-year-old Alice is diagnosed with leukemia, her prognosis is grim. To maximize the time she does have, she vows to spend her final months righting wrongs—however she sees fit. She convinces her friend Harvey, who she knows has always had feelings for her, to help her with a crazy bucket list that's as much about revenge (humiliating her ex-boyfriend and getting back at her archnemesis) as it is about hope (doing something unexpectedly kind for a stranger). But just when Alice's scores are settled, she goes into remission.

Now Alice is forced to face the consequences of all that she's said and done, as well as her true feelings for Harvey. But has she caused irreparable damage to the people around her—and to the one person who matters most?

I needed a big strong book to break me out of both my reading and my reviewing hiatus. (Hiatus sounds prettier than slump, and I’m all about them words.) I wanted something that kept my attention, that pulled at my heart, that made me think about it even when I wasn’t reading it. It seems that book was Julie Murphy’s debut Side Effects May Vary. 

I’d heard a lot about this one over the past year, and I was definitely drawn to it—both for the typographic cover that I love so much and also for its synopsis. To me, it sounded like anti-TFiOS. Which, of course, isn’t to say that these two books are the same and should be compared. Really, I’d say that the one true thing these two books definitely have in common is that I thoroughly enjoyed them. 

From what I’ve been able to gather from other reviews, the side effects that vary from Side Effects May Vary are the opinions of main character Alice Richardson.  I often use reviews to help me weed out what I might like from things that aren’t my kind of bag, but I heard over and over again that Alice was “an unlikeable narrator.” After only a few chapters, I could see why so many people would think that. However, that is precisely why I loved this story so much and why I felt it something I wanted to read. Everything isn’t always as pretty as you want it to be. Life is messy and uncomfortable, and people are far more likely to do or say the exact thing you don’t want them to do or say. Plus, I think Alice had plenty of reasons to feel freaked the eff out. It’s clear in her Then chapters that she thought she was shuffling off this mortal coil. When the only thing you’ve known is completely shattered in that way, even in a good way like Alice’s was, that is still a very hard thing to handle. Sure, I didn’t always like Alice. Sure, I felt like she used Harvey and wanted him most when she couldn’t have him. But that didn’t make her any less compelling or interesting or, honestly, likeable in my eyes.

While we’re on the subject of Harvey, despite the fact that Alice told him she only used him, I never felt sorry for him, because he stated often enough that he knew exactly what Alice was doing. Granted, he didn’t always feel the full impact of it until it was too late, but he’s not a dum-dum. He’s just a romantic. If anything, seeing Alice through his eyes showed more facets of her, more ways to see that she was spiraling and needed Harvey’s constancy more than anything else. Their relationship didn’t give me the Feels; it gave me the Thinks. I cannot stop thinking about Alice and Harvey. I’m glad they love the Question Game, because I have so many I’d like to ask.

I’m grateful I gave this book a chance. If you’re still on the fence, I’d recommend a listen to Julie’s interview with Sarah Enni on the podcast First Draft (which is what pushed me over the edge). I know I’ll be here for whatever character Julie brings me next.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Alex Crow by Andrew Smith

Release Date: March 10, 2015
Publisher: Dutton BFYR
Age Group: Young Adult
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Pages: 336
Buy: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / IndieBound
Description: Goodreads
Skillfully blending multiple story strands that transcend time and place, award-winning Grasshopper Jungle author Andrew Smith chronicles the story of Ariel, a refugee who is the sole survivor of an attack on his small village. Now living with an adoptive family in Sunday, West Virginia, Ariel's story is juxtaposed against those of a schizophrenic bomber and the diaries of a failed arctic expedition from the late nineteenth century . . . and a depressed, bionic reincarnated crow.

With its insane plot, well-drawn characters, and wholly unique narrative style, Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle was my favorite novel of 2014. Both Grasshopper Jungle and Winger are rock solid offerings from a delightful, off-kilter author, so my expectations for The Alex Crow were understandably high. Unfortunately, the strengths of both Grasshopper Jungle and Winger are weaknesses in The Alex Crow, which feels like a half-hearted and half-baked Andrew Smith effort.

Winger and Grasshopper Jungle are both grounded in exceptional character work that shines on every level, whether it be distinctive characters, realistic relationships, or compelling interpersonal conflicts. There are very brief shades of that in The Alex Crow, particularly about two thirds of the way through when Ariel’s experiences in a refugee camp are recounted. Aside from a few momentary high points, though, the characters lack any discernible conflict, resolution, or personality. Most characters are little more than a plot mechanism. The best example is Ariel’s adoptive brother, Max. Max’s only defining characteristic is his admittedly amusing ability to spout off an unlimited number of euphemisms for masturbation. He vaguely resents Ariel and their entire character conflict is first addressed and resolved with a single hug, after which their interactions remain basically unchanged. There is some subtle stuff with Ariel moving from virtually silent to talkative later on, but it feels more like a way to get the plot rolling than any sort of character growth.

The plot is similarly unfulfilling in that there doesn’t seem to be very much of one. There are a lot of threads, half-mysteries, and slick misdirections, but in the end it boils down to a whole lot of not much. The shame is that the threads floating around could coalesce into a really interesting novel, but it almost feels like Smith doesn’t want to betray the conceit of (almost) everything happening at summer camp. We have to sit through an annoying number of pages following a crazy guy driving across country and another plot about a ship named the Alex Crow that only tangentially relate to our main characters. They do tell the story of the creation and experiments of a secretive science department named Alex Division, but the story of Alex Division feels divorced from that of the main characters, even though the two do briefly intersect. The kids feel entirely superfluous to the story of Alex Division; the actual reason the kids are important to Alex Division’s plans are so mundane and ultimately unnecessary that connecting the two bores rather than excites. The book feels like it either should have been full on about Alex Division or left open the question of whether it exists, what it does, and whether or not any of the strange stuff that might be happening actually did. While it was nice to read a young adult sci-fi novel where the main characters aren’t some sort of legendarily competent renegade or hero whose job it is to take down the adults’ crazy schemes, I also would have preferred a little more to their story than smoking weed and dealing with a crappy camp counselor. 

Even the style seems a little not-Andrew-Smith. There’s the normal irreverence and willingness to address subjects like sex, drugs, and alcohol; however the book lacks the pop and energy of Smith’s previous work. Where Grasshopper Jungle and Winger felt focused and streamlined, The Alex Crow feels fat around the edges, like Smith isn’t quite sure what he wants the novel to be. Luckily, that doesn’t stop the novel from being a quick, smooth, and occasionally funny read.

With all of that said, I did read the novel is essentially one sitting and was having a great time up through about the last fifty pages. I don’t have complaints about what’s there so much as what isn’t. The whole novel feels like it’s the first two-thirds of a novel, like the plot twist that brings everything into focus and satisfying resolution is sitting there five pages after the end, just taunting the reader. Instead, we just get this vague conflict between adults that ends up not even actually mattering and kids whose role in the big conflict matter even less. It just feels like there’s 50-100 more pages to the story than we got. The whole thing feels like it wasn’t quite finished, from the character arcs to the plot to the style. It’s not bad so much as a quick, amusing piece of completely forgettable, pointless fluff.